Fermanagh's First Millionaire of the American West

Marion Maxwell looks at the colourful story of John Mullanphy

When Fermanagh man John Mullanphy sailed for Philadelphia in 1793, he was not the average emigrant. Aged 35, he had seen something of the world already, having returned from France four years earlier after eight years’ service with the Irish Brigade.

Accompanied by his wife Elizabeth (formerly Brown(e))and a young child, he now sought adventure across the Atlantic at a time of great development in North America. Equipped with drive, ambition, a keen business sense and, as would prove useful, soldiering experience and a knowledge of French culture, he was destined to become the first millionaire of the American west.

Settling initially in Baltimore, the family moved west to Frankfurt, Kentucky where Mullanphy’s trading store quickly became the social hub of the district. They moved to St Louis in 1804, the year that the former French settlement officially became an American village. Business interests saw them move to Natchez, then back to Baltimore to be near schools for the children.

John Mullanphy was soon investing in real estate. As his fortunes grew, so did his social prestige. The Mullanphys could count among their friends the family of future President Andrew Jackson whose parents were from Co Antrim.

In the war of 1812 -15 against the British, Mullanphy had assisted Jackson in defending Baltimore and again at the battle of New Orleans, when the British had sent troops up the Mississippi river. Jackson’s strategy of building a fortified rampart three miles downstream from the city ensured its safety, but without the load of cotton bales lent by his friend John Mullanphy, his rampart might not have been effective.

Ever the opportunist, Mullanphy had been buying up cotton at knock down prices since the start of the war. Afterwards, he shipped it over to Liverpool’s Cotton Exchange, getting more than seven times what he had paid for it. The profits would form the basis of his entrepreneurial empire.

John Mullanphy habitually spent about half of each year away on business, mainly in St Louis, to where the family returned in 1819, making it their permanent home. Sited on the Mississippi river, St Louis had experienced a dramatic expansion as an inland port. Already a meeting point of cultures, it became an important supply centre for the overland trails that began to open to the west, achieving city status in 1825.

St Louis saw many Irish immigrants pass through in the years during and after the famine. Some had already prospered there: the city’s first mayor, Dr William Carr Lane, was the son of Irish immigrants, Omagh-born George Maguire became its first Democrat mayor in 1842, succeeded in 1847 by John Mullanphy’s son Bryan.

John Mullanphy lived to be 75 and spent his last years dispensing portions of his great fortune in charity, giving land and money towards establishing churches, convents, schools, a hospital and an orphanage. His lasting memorial would be the many St Louis institutions named for him. With money had come power, influence and social prestige.

It was a satisfaction to him that his daughters married well - one to a General, another to a cousin of Mark Twain - but ironic that his only son, in whom he had invested so much ambition, would refuse to follow the path laid out for him.

Bryan Mullanphy was born in 1809. He and six older sisters were the only children of the couple’s fifteen to survive. A baby boy had died in 1803. Great hopes were invested in the only son: he would have the formal education denied his father and only the best would do. Influenced by contacts with the Jesuit community, Bryan was sent, aged nine, to a Jesuit school in Paris then, four years later, to Stonyhurst, the prestigious Jesuit school in Lancashire.

Obviously disappointed at the paucity of communication from his son, John Mullanphy wrote:

‘Your letters (sic) puts me in mind of the writings drawn by attorneys’ clerks who write by the sheet and have but four or five lines to the page. I am making a perfect drudge of myself and all on your account,’ he complained, making clear that the pay-off was that his son would come back to St Louis to learn the real estate business.

He would like Bryan to learn Spanish and take dancing lessons, the latter giving ‘a young man an air degage.’ Those letters which survive from Bryan give a different slant: he was often miserable and home-sick, coming back to St Louis at one point for respite. It was when he returned to Stonyhurst, aged 16, that his father sent with him a handsome present for his Jesuit hosts - a collection of Native American artefacts that had been given to him by trading contacts.

He knew that the Jesuits would prize such a collection. Characterised by intellectual curiosity, the Order had in the 17th century provided the first comprehensive data about Native America from their contacts in Canada and New York.

Completing his schooling in 1827, Bryan returned home. It was a ‘disreputable-looking, mud-covered traveller’ who arrived on the doorstep.  In direct defiance of his father, Bryan chose law as his profession. Such was John Mullanphy’s disappointment in his son that he wrote him out of his will. Indeed, it was only thanks to his sisters that he was later re-instated to an equal share of his father’s estate - then reputedly worth 5 or 6 million dollars.

Lacking the entrepreneurial zeal of his father, Bryan Mullanphy was, according to one observer, ‘a man of studious habits … with just enough of the Irish accent to give his voice a pleasant and agreeable sound.’ He was also highly eccentric. Rising to be judge of the St Louis circuit from 1840 to 1844, his judgements, we are told, were rarely questioned despite frequent displays of bizarre behaviour on and off the bench.

Sometimes wearing a boot on one foot, an untied shoe on the other, on several occasions he used to get a banjo and go up and down Third Street, attracting the attention of the passers-by with his grotesque appearance. Once, he came up behind an unsuspecting German and administered a tremendous kick to his backside whereupon the judge presented his own unprotected backside to the offended immigrant and said, ‘Now, here. You kick me!’

He could have had his pick of fortune-seeking women, but never married. In 1847 he was elected as Democrat mayor of St Louis, admired for his fearlessness in dealing with both anti-immigrant mob violence and a cholera epidemic.

In his last years, Bryan’s behaviour became increasingly bizarre. Twice, against his will, he was hospitalised by members of his family - ironically into the St Louis hospital named after his father. Two separate court hearings concluded that, although not insane, he was ‘subject to certain eccentricities of conduct, which were partly natural to him and partly produced by intemperate habits to which he was subject.’

In August 1849, while drinking in a saloon - and apparently compos mentis - he wrote his will on the fly leaf of a book (other accounts say a tablecloth or napkin), calling on four friends to witness it.
He left two thirds of his estate to his sisters, the rest (conservatively, about $200 000 at the time) to furnish ‘a fund to provide relief to all poor emigrants and travellers coming to St Louis on their way, bona fide, to settle in the west,’ among whom there was a high death toll due to cholera etc.

Bryan Mullanphy died, ironically of cholera, in the summer of 1851, aged only 42 - in his bed and not, according to one of his sisters, ‘in the street as we expected.' According to a resolution adopted by the St Louis bar on his death, ‘All his oddities are but as dust in the balance when weighed against the uprightness of his life and the succession of his charities.'

Despite their own considerable wealth, successive generations of the family mounted unsuccessful challenges to his will. The Mullanphy Travelers Aid Society celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2001.